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Police issue fires up Council

Protest rally precedes meeting

Ten citizens took up signs Monday to protest a Town Council subcommittee decision to replace just one police officer, rather than three. The date shown on some signs was when that meeting happened. Among the marchers were Town Councilors Denise Clemence and Cathy Nikolla. Gus Steeves. (click for larger version)
August 04, 2009
SOUTHBRIDGE — The thin blue line got slightly thicker Monday when Town Council unanimously hired a full-time officer and appointed five volunteer auxiliaries, but the roiling dispute over police staffing is not likely to end soon.

At issue was a Protection of Persons and Property subcommittee decision July 23 to hire one officer but postpone two others for three months. Proponents of that decision argued it was necessary due to the current fiscal uncertainties, but opponents decried it as "a misuse of Roberts Rules and a misuse of power," in the words of Monique Manna.

Manna was organizer of a protest march up Main Street on this issue before the meeting. Two councilors — Denise Clemence and Cathy Nikolla — participated, and a third, David Livengood, held a sign at Town Hall after the 10-person group arrived. In essence, they were arguing that the Council should hire all three officers soon because the department has lost five recently, but still has the funds in its budget. Failure to hire, they argued, would spark either more spending on overtime, further stressing both the budget and the officers, or less coverage around town.

Town Manager Christopher Clark agreed that the money is currently there, but might not stay there. The town finally received its state aid figures and is getting $953,802 less than it had budgeted for. After some income and insurance adjustments and using $225,000 from reserves, Clark said that will mean $305,363 in school cuts and $182,956 in town cuts. That latter was partly anticipated by freezing one vacant police officer job.

But what he didn't anticipate was the reaction to the fact "this year is the first in a long time the state did not fully fund" the Quinn Bill, which gives officers who get college degrees bonuses of 10 to 25 percent, Clark said. He explained it this way: since the state cut its share, Southbridge was planning to reduce its share to match, noting the police contract is "silent" on the Quinn Bill. Since then, however, he has received a letter from the police union claiming court cases exist that would require the town to make up the difference instead, which could require spending another $90,000. (That would approximately pay for two officers.)

"Those funds have yet to be identified," Clark said, adding there's "a fairly significant potential that, this fall, there may be further cuts."

To several speakers, such cuts should come from almost anywhere but police. Former Councilor Robert King, for example, argued that he'd rather see larger classes in school than police reductions, saying, "All we're going to have is thugs and punks in this town if we don't have a good police department."

The issue, he said "absolutely disgusts me as a citizen," later adding, "What's going to happen to the overtime budget when we stretch their safety?" That was a reference to the increased risk people face when they work a lot of overtime.

He described the department as being "150 percent better" than it used to be.

Dick Whitney agreed, saying, "Without police safety, there's no education or anything else."

He said statistics indicate the town's crime rate has fallen in the last 10 years because of the department's efforts (despite losing staff), but warned Southbridge still has the perception of being a high-crime town.

Sister Elizabeth Fitzgerald was more vivid than both men, saying, "If we don't have safety in this town, we're going to find a dead child, a dead adult, from drugs." She advocated going to other parts of the town budget for cuts.

Buffone hired

In support of his committee's vote July 23, Councilor Albert Vecchia said Chief Dan Charette gave the panel a list of officers it wanted and the members selected the top one. The next day, Charette called and said he didn't want that person and asked instead for Steven Buffone, in part because he's from Sturbridge, Vecchia said.

Charette, however, reminded subcommittee member Richard Logan that he'd asked Logan after the PPP meeting, "What did you just do? Did you put a name forward?" Logan recalled that comment, and agreed the panel had not, in fact, actually named a person for the job.

"I didn't know which name they were going to go with," Charette said.

Clark agreed "there was some confusion," then took responsibility for it, saying he didn't realize Charette had just listed the officers alphabetically rather than in order of preference.

There was no similar issue with the auxiliary officers, largely because they are unpaid.

With a similar level of debate, the council voted 7-2 to change its mind and reappoint Rinaldo Bernardone to the Board of Health fro three years. The councilors had booted him off that board at the last meeting by a 5-4 vote.

The two who did not change were Nikolla and Livengood, who stuck to their original argument that people should not sit on multiple quasi-judicial boards. Bernardone is also on the Liquor License Board.

Several others agreed that multiple-board issue deserves to be looked at, but seemed to support Logan's argument that since the Council "has no policy on this issue, it seems capricious" to make Bernardone first. He suggested having the General Government subcommittee come up with such a policy, and Larry McDonald said it could do so, but would be somewhat limited by the charter.

From the podium afterward, Bernardone thanked them for reconsidering, singling out Clemence for being willing to talk to him after the last vote. He observed that some people have told him it's actually helpful to have somebody on both Health and Liquor boards because some of their issues overlap regarding restaurants. He also urged the council to come up with some way to "guide people from one board to the next."

With much less fanfare, the council appointed seven people to fill citizen member seats on four council subcommittees.

Gus Steeves can be reached at 508-909-4135 or by e-mail at gsteeves@stonebridgepress.com.

See Wednesday's Southbridge Evening News for complete coverage of community news.

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